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Japan May Soon Legally Force Office Workers to Take Days Off

The Japanese parliament is considering making it compulsory for workers to take five days of paid leave a year, ?in a bid to reduce work-related cases of depression and suicide.

by Donato Paolo Mancini
Feb 6 2015, 7:01pm

Photo by Alexis Le-Quoc

In a bid to reduce work-related cases of depression and suicide, the Japanese parliament is considering making it compulsory for workers to take five days of paid leave a year. The bill, proposed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party will be discussed in the current session of the Japan's Diet, which runs from January 26 to June 24.

In Japan, long hours in the workplace are seen both as a necessity and a reason for honor. As full-time jobs have declined in relation to part-time positions over the last three decades, full-time workers have had to take on more responsibilities, especially as job definitions and workflow can be vague. Many workers fear resentment from their colleagues if they take days off, resulting in 2013 in an average of only nine paid leave days taken out of an 18.5 entitlement each year. Another survey found that one in six workers took no paid days at all.

The phenomenon even has its own word, karoshi, which literally means "working to death." It was first picked up on by the media in the 80s, when managers in their 30s or 40s suddenly died of heart failure or stroke, apparently in relation to brutal work loads. Yet karoshi has now risen to international prominence, with cases being reported among blue-collar workers, too. Accounts of men in their mid-40s working an average of 80 hours per week — and dying as a result of that — are not rare occurrences.

Hiroto, a 26-year-old graduate from the top-tier Waseda University who works in Tokyo, told VICE News that he works around 65 hours a week, doing overtime "almost every day." He said that he wasn't told in detail what his job would involve when he was recruited and pointed out that overworking did limit his life outside the workplace.

When asked about the future, he said things were unlikely to change unless "people really wanted them to change," as co-workers were "afraid of failure."

In 2011, a 22-year old English language instructor committed suicide in Kanazawa, after complaining of unbearable out-of-office hours. An investigation into her death estimated she was working 111 unpaid hours each month. In an email to her father, she said that it was painful that she had to continue her job even after she went home.

Sociology Professor Scott North of the University of Osaka estimated that as many as 8,000 out of 30,000 suicides in Japan each year are work-related. On top of this, he believes that at least 10,000 non-suicide deaths occur because work-related exhaustion. 

In 2012, relatives of karoshi victims started pushing for institutional change. A first version of the law was discussed and partially approved last May, when parliament mandated the collection of official statistics in relation to extreme overtime, also establishing state-funded support for counseling and for civil society groups fighting the problem.

In 2013, a record 1,409 people sought compensation for work-related depression and mental health problems. The number is the highest since records started in 1983. People in their 30s accounted for nearly 40 percent of the cases. 

Families of karoshi victims also met with representatives from the Lower Chamber's Committee on Health, Labor and Welfare in 2014, and this legal proposal was approved by a multipartisan group, starting the draft bill's journey in the Japanese executive branch.

The bill has drawn criticism from both workers and unions. Japanese PM Abe abandoned plans to push the bill in its entirety last May, but plans for the newly elected parliament will approve it this congressional session. Abe recently said the Japanese work ethic is "a culture that falsely beatifies long hours."

Follow Donato Paolo Mancini on Twitter: @building

Photo via Flickr